Chef Josh Boutwood likes to make life difficult for himself.
“I don't want life to be easy,” he admits. “I like to challenge myself.”
The latest challenge he’s met, overcome and emerged victorious from is opening a new outpost of Helm, his tasting-menu restaurant that showcases the ingredients and techniques he’s passionate about, his diverse culinary background, and boundless creativity.
While the flagship Helm in BGC is a bright, intimate 10-seater, this reimagined Helm in the upscale Shops at Ayala Triangle Gardens is dark, ultra-modern and edgy-cool, with 24 seats indoors and 20 more outdoors, depending on the weather.
“We wanted to open without a theme, because Helm usually has a theme,” Boutwood says. “We're doing this for months in order for us not to be confined in a box of thought.”
Helm’s new tasting menu is indeed out-of-the-box, even if Josh’s signature of focusing on three main ingredients per dish is reassuringly familiar.
You start with a trio of snacks that you pick up with your hands or chopsticks. I loved Josh’s take on fish and chips—fried tanigue smoked in apple wood with calamansi gel for a pop of acidity.
His onion tart was also a joy—a flavor bomb of horseradish emulsion, dry-aged rib eye and crispy onion strings.
The chef and his son are Star Wars fans (as evidenced by the Stormtrooper helmet Boutwood keeps on the premises), so I wondered if the soup course—called Mussel, Lemongrass, Chili—might have been inspired by The Mandalorian episode where Grogu enjoys a cup of soup. This one was equally memorable, with its chili, dill and burnt-garlic oils.
Another highlight for me was Egg Yolk, Barley, Kale—barley porridge made with 24-month-old Comte cheese and pecorino. The egg-yolk gel in the middle made it rich, creamy and comforting, while puffed rice on top gave it a satisfying crunch.
But perhaps the supreme highlight for this bread lover was Josh’s The Test Kitchen Bakery Sourdough, which is so good it’s not a side but a solo dish on the menu, and the star of the bakery Boutwood plans to open next.
“I am proud to say that it's 100% natural, not even one milligram of yeast has gone into that,” Josh notes. “This is made with a four-year-old called Sebastian that is not child labor, I promise you. Sebastian is our starter. And he's just nonstop working, because we churn out about 400 loaves a week just for the restaurants. So he never has a rest day—employee number one for the past five years.”
Boutwood made Sebastian with rye and water, “so the bakery’s name is going to be Rye,” he reveals, and the chef was going to view its possible location in Rockwell the day after our dinner.
Anyway, this sourdough, whose crackling crust and pillowy-soft crumb is eye-closing perfection, is served with whipped and burnt butters in the shape of a bone marrow.
I find myself going back to how I enjoy cooking again. I love things to be difficult. It makes life interesting.
As a pescatarian I also loved the flaky and tender Seabass, Mussel Emulsion, Parsley, but the duck Josh was slicing on the marble counter looked so appetizing I suffered from serious FOMO and sneaked a bite from my dinner companion, Grace. Helm’s Duck, Soursop, Black Pepper—pan-seared duck with guyabano and onion gels—is so fabulous and flawless that my cheat was worth it.
I wasn’t able to try the pork tenderloin or Australian beef strip loin, but Boutwood, sous chef Jao Barrameda and his team go through such backbreaking exertions in the pursuit of perfection that I would recommend them out of hand. The sauce for the Pork Tenderloin, Celeriac, Cabbage, is gleaned from roasted pig trotters they cook down very slowly for four days straight, while the beef for the Strip Loin, Mushroom, Sunchoke, is placed in a hot pan, cooked for about 10 seconds on each side, and rested for about 10 minutes. That may not sound like much, but then “we repeat the process for about six hours straight,” Josh informs us. “It's a killer on labor costs but somebody's got to do it,” he laughs.
After the mains comes a beautiful Saint-Nectaire cheese from Auvergne, France, paired with a pear butter and beetroot Lavash.
Two desserts cap the meal: a refreshing Coconut, Mango, Vanilla and Burnt Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate that Josh serves with Tanzanian coffee. “We've had this dark-roasted specifically for us,” he says. “You'll get tones of tobacco and caramel, on the palate a hint of licorice and a touch of jasmine at the end.”
Boutwood says he lives off coffee—“coffee is like my water”—so his upcoming bakery will also serve the dark brew.
After a month or so this new Helm will serve lunch, with an edited menu. “It's not going to be the full tasting, just a shortened five-course menu that we've compressed into under an hour, because people—especially in the office building—need to get lunch over and done with as fast as possible. But we still want them to create a memory at lunchtime.”
That’s the whole point of the new Helm, actually: to create memories and savor flavors that only Josh Boutwood can dream up and create. The chef, who became a sensation with The Test Kitchen and restaurants like Savage and Ember, is at the top of his game with Helm.
“I find myself going back to how I enjoy cooking again,” he says.
But there’s always that twist: “I love things to be difficult. It makes life interesting.”
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Helm by Josh Boutwood is located on the 3/F of The Shops at Ayala Triangle Gardens, Ayala Avenue corner Paseo de Roxas, Makati City, open from Tuesday to Sunday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., tel. (0915) 909-8647. The eight-course tasting menu is P5,800; 12-course tasting menu is P8,800, inclusive of VAT but no service charge. Email [email protected] or visit www.joshboutwood.net for more info.